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Saudi Arabia signs business deals worth $50 billion at 'Davos in the desert'

Saudi Arabia has signed agreements worth over $50 billion with global companies at an investor conference in...

Posted: Oct 23, 2018 2:07 PM
Updated: Oct 23, 2018 2:07 PM

Saudi Arabia has signed agreements worth over $50 billion with global companies at an investor conference in Riyadh despite the international uproar over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

State oil company Aramco announced Tuesday that it had signed 15 memorandums of understanding worth $34 billion with firms from eight countries, including the United States, at the Future Investment Initiative.

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Aramco CEO Amir Nasser told CNN Business' Emerging Markets Editor John Defterios that $16 billion worth of deals had been done in other sectors of the Saudi economy.

Among the companies partnering with Aramco are US oil field service firms Halliburton (HAL), Schlumberger (SLB) and Baker Hughes (BHGE). US conglomerate Air Products (APD) will work on a gas power project.

France's Total (TOT) has agreed to begin engineering studies on building a petrochemical complex, as well as partner with Saudi Aramco on a retail gas station network. Hyundai Heavy Industries, from South Korea, will develop a maritime facility.

The remaining companies to sign deals with Aramco are based in the United Arab Emirates, Japan, India and China.

"These collaborations reflect the range and ambition of Saudi Aramco's business interests, reinforcing its position as the world's preeminent energy and chemicals company," Aramco said in a statement.

While other deals may yet be inked at the "Davos in the desert" conference, the agreements announced by Aramco underscore the continued importance of the massive oil company to the kingdom's economy.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has poured Saudi money into domestic tourism projects and global tech companies as part of an effort to diversify the economy.

The Future Investment Initiative, which kicked off on Tuesday, was meant to highlight those initiatives and showcase the country's modernization efforts.

Instead, the crown prince is grappling with the international outcry over what happened to Khashoggi.

Organizers of the Riyadh conference had hoped it would be business as usual despite an exodus of guests including the CEOs of HSBC (HSBC) and Blackrock (BLK).

Still, the lack of big names won't prevent discussions about future business opportunities. Some companies, such as JPMorgan (JPM) and HSBC, are sending less senior executives, despite their CEOs withdrawing.

American and European businesses clearly want to keep channels of communication open amid the furor around the conference.

Some of them are pointing to their decades-long ties to the Saudi government and their large numbers of employees in the kingdom.

"A lot of our partners are here," Nasser said. "The ones we are doing business with are here."

Business links to Saudi Arabia are particularly strong among companies involved in the energy and weapons industries. The CEO of defense contractor Raytheon (RTN), Thomas Kennedy, is still listed as a speaker at the event.

Nasser said that an initial public offering for Aramco, which had been scheduled for this year, could take place in 2021 following negotiations with regulators.

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